On literary beginnings

Two thought-provoking confessions on literary beginnings appeared on my radar recently, one by Richard Ford (“Where Does Writing Come From?” in the anthology Why I Write) and the other by Peter Carey (in his Paris Review interview, Art of Fiction No 188). They’re both impressively humble about the whole enterprise, considering their statures. It’s a humility rooted in a recognition of literary alchemy, and the role they see themselves playing in it.

In his essay, Ford considers the often-posted question where do your ideas come from? and comes clean about his beliefs. “Considering an actual set of mechanical connections that might have brought a piece of writing from nowhere, the ‘place’ it resided before I’d written it, to its final condition as the book I hope you’ll love, actually impresses upon me the romantic view that artistic invention is a kind of casual magic, one that can’t be adequately explained the way, say, a train’s arrival in Des Moines can be nicely accounted for by tracing the tracks and switches and sidings and tunnels all the way to its origin in Paducah…the true connections could never really be traceable because they exist only in that murky, silent, but fecund interstellar night where impulse, free association, instinct, and error reign.”

One of the ways that he underscores this idea of ‘casual magic’ is through a story of a reader’s compliment of his invented adjective ‘old-eyed.’ When he came across the manuscript for that book years later he was somehow not surprised to find that his ‘invention’ of the adjective was inadvertent: in one of the many retypings, he’d accidentally dropped the c in cold-eyed. Though he’d enjoyed the compliment at the time (“naturally, I was pleased to have written something that somebody liked”), the discovery of the true provenance of ‘old-eyed’ wasn’t remotely a problem. Quite the opposite, in fact. It put paid to the idea the act of creation couldn’t be reduced to “some problem of industrial design,” and that made it a very hopeful thing.

“I believe that there are important made-up things that resist precise tracing back, and that’s it’s a blessing there are, since our acceptance of them in literature suggests that for every human problem, every insoluble, every cul-de-sac, every despair, there’s a chance we can conjure up an improvement,” he writes. I love that.

Peter Carey is similarly guided by intuition. How reassuring to read that for this two-time winner of the Booker Prize, writing “is like standing on the edge of a cliff. This is especially true of the first draft. Every day you’re making up the earth you’re going to stand on.” His characters “begin with an image—a strong, symbolic picture—and then ask myself, What do you have to do to arrive at this point? What sort of person would do that thing—not just because it suits a story or suits something symbolically, but who would really, really do that?”

Wow, did that resonate. For at least three years before starting to write The Umbrella Mender, I carried around an image of a young woman giving birth in a silo, in my notebook and in my head. Who was she? How did she get there? The image lodged itself there when I was out for a ramble on the huge, rural property of a family friend and came across a dilapidated and roofless silo. In black-paint graffiti, there was a stick-figure drawing with the words ‘Caitlin’s Birthing Centre,’ no doubt written by a group of marauding teenagers.

But then again, maybe not.